Last week Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o won the Oscar for best supporting actress for her portrayal of slave girl, Patsey in the film Twelve years a slave.
The main plot revolved around the kidnap of Solomon Northup, and his travails as a slave for 12 years, hence the title, but arguably the film would have been nothing without the harrowing tragedy that was Patsey’s life.
I have a theory about black Oscar winners.
Whenever I hear a black actor has been nominated for the Oscar, I am always eager to see what role he or she portrays. Invariably it is a role that perpetuates a stereotype as, flawed entertainers, obsequious servants, sex objects, as a foil for a main white character or depraved gangsters.
A casual perusal down the list of black winners will more than bear that out. This not to take away from the acting skills of Sydney Poitier, Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington or Forest Whitaker.
It seems to me that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, the institution that awards the Oscars, would experience some cognitive dissonance in trying to award a black actor who portrays a heroic soldier or devious Wall Street broker or a lovable idiot savant. I am sure back actors have played these roles before and carried them with distinction.
I confess an ignorance of the processes employed by The Academy in nominating its potential weinners, but we judge them by their fruits. It’s a pattern I will be glad to be wrong about.
Which brings us to Lupita’s performance. In the 134 minutes of the film I will be surprised if her parts put end-to-end last 20 minutes – that’s why her Oscar was for supporting actress.
Two things stood out for me.
Patsey called for a character out of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a primitive, gullible, hopeless figure who it is hard to like or pity. That Lupita, a worldly lady, born abroad of middle class parents – she did not fall of the turnip truck by any means, found it in herself to portray this tragic heroine was a feat fit for high praise.
Her portrayal of this African caricature was so compelling it left me thinking the producers of the film should have turned the script around to be about her.
But it also left me wondering – with my theory as a backdrop, whether the esteemed judges of the
Academy did not see her performance and think, “Ya! That’s what we can relate to as what blacks are about!”
Related to that I cannot remember any other mainstream production in which a character was subjected to the depraved brutality as Lupita’s character endured in one five-minute clip of vicious lashing. Jesus’ flogging in The Passion of the Christ may have come close.
Secondly, while the film was sprinkled with some real psychopathic characters, surreal episodes all through the film reminded you that this was a way of life, supported by a system of administration, authored and supported by some of the fathers of modern democracy.
It was also a scary reminder that a system can be engineered for one purpose – cheap labour in this case and justified to and gain acceptance in a wider society a totally different way: blacks needed civilising and this was the way to do it.
There were a few surreal scenes with one slave master leading his household --- family and slaves, in church service and you had to wonder.
It is a watch-through-your-fingers film, a thought provoking film and when it is all over you slink out of the theatre as if you had witnessed or been party to a crime whose story you will not repeat elsewhere.
The hype surrounding the film may have detracted from its impact but it is a moving snapshot of one of the darkest periods in human history that some would understandably not want to rehash.
This a game changer for Lupita’s budding career, but it is hard to see how it opens the doors for other African aspirants to Hollywood. There are some subjects that just don’t play out well for the money making moguls of Hollywood or for money spending movie goers.
In the 20 weeks since its release “12 years a slave” has brought in $50m. Gravity an action/adventure film that was released around the same time and in fewer theatres had, by the time of writing, made $270m.
Congratulations again to Lupita, whose latest movie “Non-Stop” opened last week and has already earned $28m, her talent is undeniable, now she can get on with the business of making money.